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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Katharine Hepburn

b. 1907, Hartford, Connecticut; d. 2003, Old Saybrook, Connecticut

Katharine Hepburn, one of the greatest actresses of the Hollywood system, sustained one of the longest careers of her generation. Her screen persona—a combination of patrician poise and androgynous tomboyishness—confused studio executives, who did not know how to market her. Nor, despite initial signs of appreciation, were audiences immediately seduced. She received an Academy Award for her performance in the 1933 Morning Glory, but by 1936 was labeled “box-office poison,” though her filmography through the decade is filled with stellar performances in unusual roles: the adventurous aviatrix in Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933), the small-town girl with aspirations in Alice Adams (1935), the girl-on-the-run-disguised-as-a-boy in Sylvia Scarlett, and the harebrained heiress in Bringing Up Baby, a screwball that showcased her gift for rapid-fire delivery of comic dialogue. Hepburn resurrected her career in The Philadelphia Story (1940), a drawing-room comedy in which a spoiled society girl gets her comeuppance. It was the gentle taming of the intelligent, self-assertive Hepburn that finally conquered audiences. Variations on this formula were played out in some of her most enduring films, particularly in the legendary collaborations with Spencer Tracy, such as Woman of the Year (1942) and the delightful Adam’s Rib (1949). As Hepburn aged, her acting acquired a new depth and subtlety. She delivered perhaps her greatest film performance as the morphine-addicted mother in A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) and would receive three more Academy Awards, all when she was in her sixties. She made her last screen appearance in 1994.